Engaging and inspiring students in digital rights litigation

By Oliver Butler, 5th July 2019

What can academics and the digital rights NGOs do to engage and inspire students? One of the real joys of working in Universities is being exposed to a wide range of passionate, bright and enthusiastic students. In addition to cultivating a rigorous and critical understanding of legal doctrine and scholarship, there is deep interest among students in connecting their studies to practice, policy development and advocacy of many kinds. This is especially true of human rights and digital rights.

A key strategic goal of the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, where I am a research fellow, is to enrich the exposure of Oxford students to human rights, as well as promoting human rights conversations amongst law students globally. It was a real pleasure to learn from attendees at the Connecting the Digital Rights Field with Academia workshop about different models of student engagement. US legal clinics provide excellent opportunities for their students to develop legal skills through working with strategic litigators. It was particularly striking how well integrated such clinical courses can be with course seminars and broader structures.

At the workshops, we explored how US Law Schools differ from European legal education and what implications this has for effectively engaging students in the work of digital rights NGOs. An important difference lies in the composition of the main student population. JD students at US Law Schools are enrolled on a three-year professional degree course, having already completed undergraduate degrees, where the majority move into practice relatively quickly via State Bar exams. JD degrees have a greater focus on academic and professional development and clinics may be taken for course credit.

By contrast, at European Universities, the main population of law students are enrolled on undergraduate degrees. To take the UK as an example, legal education is divided into academic, vocational and professional stages. A qualifying undergraduate law degree fulfils the academic stage, although increasing numbers of students seek one-year LLM degrees for specialism and advanced study. One-year Legal Practice Courses and Bar Professional Training Courses fulfil the vocational requirements of professional regulators. Professional training is then completed during the first year or two of practice, either through barristers’ pupillages or solicitors’ training contracts. Opportunities during the academic stage are therefore focused on extra-curricular enrichment and career development, although some Universities do award course credit for clinical and other activities. PhD programmes are focused on scholarship and academic career paths, although they increasingly recognise that students might seek broader opportunities after completing a PhD thesis. Of course, many students take courses other than law while maintaining an interest in human rights and digital rights. In this regard, it is important not to overlook the value that computer scientists, economists, political scientists and other disciplines can bring to such projects.

Understanding the challenges these different contexts present and the incentives that may be available to attract students to assist in digital rights litigation is important for the success of student engagement. In our discussions, we noted the importance of distinguishing between different types of students. Undergraduates are understandably relatively inexperienced and the pace of short terms and frequent exams can make recruitment and retention challenging for non-credit participation. LLM courses are short and subject to similar intense teaching and examination schedules. Both types of student are typically only resident during term. PhD students can avoid some of these difficulties, especially when the engagement is related to their research and career ambitions, but they are relatively few in number compared to the other groups.

A key challenge is recruitment and retention, especially where students are under other pressures and engagement cannot be offered for course credit. The workshop discussed the incentives that could be used to address this. In some cases, payment for research assistance may be available but is typically low paid and can be subject to overall limits in some Universities. It is therefore important to recognise the role that recognition can play. Student engagement can be enhanced by ensuring it works as a career development opportunity. Engagement with NGOs with interesting work helps students to stand out in a competitive market, gain experience, and network to learn about the field. More formal recognition, such as letters of thanks, certificates of participation and personalised feedback at the end of programmes can incentivise participation and retention. Opportunities to present their work to NGOs, to publish blog posts, and participate in future internships are valuable and could be better showcased to prospective students. Retention through alumni networks or ambassador roles can also help to build on earlier successes, as can ongoing communication about the value of student input in NGO work.

A further challenge we discussed was the difficulty of engaging students in activities other than “soft” advocacy. European legal systems often limit the forms of legal work that students can undertake, even with appropriate supervision. However, there was a fruitful discussion of the role that students can play in comparative research, freedom of information requests, or formulating complaints to regulators to support NGO work.

The final challenge we discussed was funding for non-credit activities. We discussed the role that intern coordinators successfully play in helping students to identify sources of funds and the benefits of establishing living wage internships for students. This is especially important as funding can have a real impact on inclusiveness. Funding can play a valuable role in promoting diversity and ensuring that the availability of resources does not prevent passionate, bright and enthusiastic students from entering the digital rights field.

Engaging students can be a valuable way for digital rights litigators to bolster their capacity on appropriate projects, while raising awareness of digital rights and inspiring students to become future digital rights litigators and policy-makers.

About the author: Oliver Butler is a Fellow in Law at Wadham College, University of Oxford and a Research Fellow at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, University of Oxford.

Connecting the field and academia: exploring options for collaboration

By Nani Jansen Reventlow, 27th June 2019

What can we do to create greater connectivity between the digital rights field and academia? What untapped potential is there in collaboration with law clinics in the area of digital rights? And how can we see to it that academic research and work “on the ground” positively reinforce each other?

These questions were asked at the first DFF strategy meeting in February 2018. Following up on this idea –– which could not only potentially add additional capacity to organisations working to advance digital rights, but also help lift the playing field for all –– we started a number of conversations with litigators, advocacy organisations and academics in both the US and Europe to explore the options. There was a shared enthusiasm to have a broader conversation, in which we could explore best practices in academia-field collaboration, which led to the convening by DFF, the Amsterdam Legal Practice (University of Amsterdam), and the Cyberlaw Clinic at the Berkman Klein Center, Harvard University of a group of 18 practitioners, academics and law clinic innovators from across Europe and the United States.

In the course of two days, we covered a substantial amount of ground, under the energetic guidance of Gunner from Aspiration in the creative environment of the University of Amsterdam’s recently opened Amsterdam Law Hub. The first day focused on the sharing of insights from existing projects, and the building of collaborative relationships and mapping the needs of academia, practitioners, NGOs and communities. On the second day, concrete ways to work together in the near and longer term were explored, which included conversations on concrete thematic issues such as collaboration around the use of technology in social benefits fraud detection, but also ways for US and EU law clinics to work together, “hacking” the European clinic system to make it easier to launch and establish new law clinics, and what might be possible “easy wins” to pursue across jurisdictions via collaboration between academia and the digital rights field.

Next steps identified included mapping options for expanding the number of European digital rights clinics, mapping the different modalities of clinic-practice collaboration, collaboration on European-US clinical capacity building, as well as focusing on concrete thematic projects, such as new surveillance techniques. 

There is much more that can be said about the individual conversations, but we would much rather leave it to the event participants to speak for themselves; watch this space for guest posts that will be published over the coming days and weeks. 

Let me close by expressing our extreme gratitude for all who brought their time, energy and ideas to this meeting. It was a privilege to provide the space for what we at DFF believe is a crucial conversation.

Now: who will join us in taking this forward?

noyb and Access Now host a meeting on effective enforcement actions under the GDPR

By Gaëtan Goldberg, 20th June 2019

Last month, noyb and Access Now jointly hosted a three-day meeting in Vienna, celebrating the first year of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and focusing on advancing rights under the regulation through effective enforcement actions. The meeting mapped best practices on how to detect data protection violations and how to strategically lodge complaints with the various data protection authorities. Among the diverse set of attendees were representatives from data protection authorities, consumer rights organisations, researchers and NGOs from across Europe, including Privacy International, Bits of Freedom, Algorithm Watch, Open Rights Group, Digital Rights Ireland, D3, Homo Digitalis and Data Rights.

What did the meeting focus on?

The meeting was divided into four sessions, which covered several practical elements to take into account when litigating under the GDPR, such as the choice of jurisdiction and the differences between the various enforcement options available under the European regulation. Participants shared lessons learnt from their own experience with data protection cases and several breakout sessions saw participants joining forces in small groups to solve specific data protection problems. The two days of discussions were informed by analysis carried out by participants on actual privacy policies and data sets obtained through subject access requests, with a view to ascertaining areas for challenge. Other sessions zoomed in on the numerous differences contained in the GDPR transposing laws of different EU Member States, with a discussion around what the best venues are for certain kinds of challenge.

What were our findings?

Following the different panels, activities and discussions, the group observed that a substantial number of companies’ privacy practices are violating the GDPR, including some of the regulation’s most basic principles. Despite expanding their compliance programmes, businesses still appear to be grappling with their duties and responsibilities under the GDPR. It was noted that controllers often fail to comply with their duties, such as providing transparent and intelligible privacy policies or facilitating the exercise of data subjects’ rights. Eventually, the group observed that although it consists of a regulation, attention should also be given to the adaptation laws of Member States to determine whether they are consistent with the margin of manoevre allowed by the regulation.    

Collaborating at a European level

The event was a great opportunity for participants to share knowledge, join forces, collect feedback from practitioners, and engage in fruitful discussions on the most strategic ways to advance citizens’ rights through effective enforcement actions. Collaborating at a European level between NGOs is a priority and, in this regard, the event certainly was a positive step forward as participants actively engaged in all activities and committed to continue working together.

About the authors: Gaëtan Goldberg is a Data Protection Lawyer at noyb – European Center for Digital Rights, a non-profit organisation that aims to safeguard the fundamental rights to privacy and data protection. Estelle Masse is a Senior Policy Analyst and Global Data Protection Lead at Access Now.